Comic v. Socratic: What are we laughing at?

Tracing the intention, method, and appeal of the comic and Socratic assertions. Here’s how populist politics and collective laughter heavily undermine societal compassion and pursuit of knowledge.

RIGHT: Trounce me? What do you think you are?

WRONG: An argument. Like you.

RIGHT: Yes, a wrong argument.

WRONG: Maybe, but I’ll still beat you, Right though you call yourself.

RIGHT: How d’you think you’ll contrive to do that?

WRONG: Just by thinking out a few novel ideas.

RIGHT: Yes, they’re in fashion now, aren’t they — because of those morons out there [indicating at the audience]

- Aristophanes, The Clouds 892–898 (tr. Alan H. Sommerstein)

In Aristophanes’ The Clouds, the character of Wrong Arguments, as indicated above, was able to trounce the logic of Right Arguments and convinced Pheidippides. Pheidippides has been analogized as the young men of Athens who have been ‘chattering away in the Market Square about some abstruse topic or other’. They talk about new ideas that cause a sense of uncertainty among the old generation as the traditional religious and ethical beliefs were being challenged. This imagery invoked by Aristophanes through the assertions of the character of Right Arguments is a typical spectacle of Socrates’ conversation with people. The abstruseness of the conversational topic is characterized by the unconventional and maddening method of demanding a definition and subsequently, cross-examining it to bring out the inherent unthought-of premises the definition has been built upon. Aristophanes had the disposition and ability to write comic plays and perform them for the people, while his intent had mostly been driven by the lure of winning competitions. Driven by this intention, Aristophanes and other comic writers used to attack political and moral colossuses in order to familiarize and sensationalize their plays among the people. Since Socrates was well known for his supposed moral subversion in the Athenian society, he was depicted as the sophist of new knowledge in The Clouds. Socrates provided a good target of satire as the subversion of old ideas by new ideas was sufficiently captured by his idiosyncratic traits.

Contrary to the popular impression that Socrates and Aristophanes observed a deep animosity, Leo Strauss suggests that Platonic dialogues like the Banquet and Symposium depict the two as rather close to each other. Strauss asserts that the comic poet might have been envious of Socrates and the command he had on the young population. In The Clouds, we see an amusing and provocative slander against Socrates which found space in the prevailing common sense of the people and captured the collective memory for a sufficient number of years to come. I suggest sufficient because Aristophanes’ slander was a contributing factor to Socrates’ death sentence. While recalling the accusations against him in his defense speech at his trial, Socrates asserts that he doesn’t know a thing about natural philosophy, neither does he pretend to know as he was contrarily depicted in The Clouds. Kenneth Dover asserts that what might seem like ‘an invitation to violence or repressive legislation’ against Socrates through The Clouds, Aristophanes could not have conceived that his mockery would contribute to Socrates’ death. Although, this assertion doesn’t sanitize the fact that Aristophanes’ comical assertions indeed entered the prevailing common sense through a relatively easier method of communication and prompt assimilation than the Socratic Method.

Strauss informs that there was a transition from natural philosophy to a political philosophy which was marked by the concerns raised by Socrates. Unequivocally, it has been asserted that Socrates brought the discipline of philosophy from the contemplation about skies and heavens to interrogating the realities on the ground, famously known as the agora or the marketplace. Socrates would accost young men and ask them for the definition of the terms and concepts they had been using in a confident and casual manner, as Socrates eavesdropped. Strauss suggests Socrates wasn’t always a political philosopher but a proponent and examiner of natural philosophy initially whom he refers to as the young Socrates, who is to be found in The Clouds, contrary to his own assertion in Plato’s recollection in Apology. Aristophanes treats Socrates as the kind of sophist whom Socrates actually despises. What is more, he caricatures Socrates in a worse image as a person who tricks innocent Athenians and conducts fraud. Socrates and Aristophanes had differing intentions and completely different, or rather opposite methods. Consequently, they commanded extremely different appeal in the Athenian society. The article shall attempt to trace these three areas while also suggesting that the inequality in the appeal of the two could be ascribed to the different methods they resorted to, viz. the comic and the Socratic.

Socrates, who?” “That schmuck who ponders a flea’s jump and a gnat’s buzz.” “Oh, that atheist!”

In The Clouds, Socrates has been introduced as a pale-faced, barefooted charlatan who engages in the investigation of a flea’s ability to jump and how much, and the source of the buzzing sound made by a gnat, for which we find laughable but juvenile explanations. Aristophanes successfully establishes that Socrates’ concerns are to be treated as laughing stocks. He hints at the monetary basis and patronage involved in sophistic teachings by asserting that people who write and talk well about, for instance, the clouds, are also benefitted by them and they observe a great sense of loyalty. Socrates’ supposed gods, i.e. the clouds, refer to him as ‘a high priest of subtlest nonsense’ in the text. The charges of atheism and insulting local gods leveled against Socrates also find a subtle contribution from some excerpts and instances in the text such as when Strepsiades puts the School on fire and Socrates is wailing for help:

“Strepsiades: What did you expect, the way you wantonly insulted the gods and scrutinized the backside of the Moon? Chase them, stone them, and hit them, for all their crimes! Remember they have wronged the gods!”

The play ends with these convictions. However, Strepsiades’ attack on Socrates is also a commentary on the self-benefiting and convenience-driven approach people have vis-à-vis religious beliefs and their financial troubles, as the people unquestioningly believe in anything new as soon as it offers them refuge. But it also highlights how an ordinary Athenian is supposed to think about the likes of Socrates and well, only Socrates in particular.

In the Apology, Plato recollects Socrates saying that he has two sets of accusers. One set consists of recent accusers who are Anytus and his associates, who framed the charges and led the trial. While the latter is, Socrates argues, the set of ancient accusers who are-

“far more dangerous, who began when you were children and took possession of your minds…telling of one Socrates…who made the worse appear the better cause…and they made them in days when you were impressible- in childhood, or perhaps in youth- and the cause when heard went by default (emphasis added), for there was none to answer. And, hardest of all, their names I do now know and cannot tell; unless in the chance of a comic poet”

while speaking to the jurors. Here, Socrates is hinting at Aristophanes’ The Clouds where he is satirically depicted as ‘a wise man who investigates things in the air and below the earth and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger’. David Konstan informs that Aristophanes’ contemporaries like Ameipsias put on a play entitled Konnos in which he too caricatured Socrates, and Eupolis had a character who declared his hate for Socrates by denigrating him as a babbling beggar who theorizes about everything but neglects to think where he can get a meal. Contrary to Plato’s depiction of Socrates in Republic as a virtuous, pious, and just man, Aristophanes projects Socrates as a sophist who doesn’t discourage a person like Strepsiades from his ill motive that is to trick the creditors with rhetoric and persuasion so that he doesn’t have to pay them any amount of money or their interest. In this pursuit, he urges Socrates not to teach him natural sciences and rather, give him a very selective understanding of rhetoric, enough to rescue him. Socrates makes an attempt but moves on to teach in a manner that makes Strepsiades realize how unaware he had been about the most trivial things around him. Here, Aristophanes successfully depicts Socrates as a trickster who thrives on his eloquent rhetoric. However, Aristophanes did not kill Socrates. Or did he?

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Easy Laughter. A cartoon by the author depicting the collective laughter of a people directed towards moral and political colossuses like Socrates, or anyone attempting to flow against the tide of moral deprivation and societal degradation. The affirmative effect of the collective laughter is to be observed as the impact increases when it is a communal exercise.

I just dodged that Socrates, I was carelessly using the term anti-national and feared he might let me know how wrong I am. Phew.” “Good for you! Did you see how that family’s 4th generation tyrant tried to question our beloved Modiji?”

Looking into the intentions, Socrates mentions in the Apology that he intends to care for the soul of the people and work towards its improvement. He intends to stop them from getting consumed by the considerations of increasing money, honor, and reputation which anyway belonged to them just by the virtue of being Athenians. He believes such moral improvement can happen through self-knowledge which is also attributed to the Socratic Method by the psychological functions of perplexity or the experience of aporia, the demand for sincerity, and the motivating effects of shame. The method demands the interlocutor to utter an answer to Socrates’ query based on the common and reputed opinions in society. Further, the method employs the application of verbal ambiguity in order to reinterpret the commonly-held, reputed assertions of the interlocutor. Verbal ambiguity is initiated in order to refute the claims of the interlocutor and then persuade them to realize the implausibility of their assertions. Socrates’ questions and responses are entirely based on the definitions and subsequent responses of the interlocutor; hence, this gives the method an ad-hominem character.

Cain suggests that the Socratic Method as a discursive method of reasoning has limitations that are intrinsic to its specific form, normative content, and scope. These limitations further proliferate in their impact when put against methods of mass and relatively easier communication like performing a play at the festivals. The definitions that Socrates demands are from the realm of the endoxical which is informed by the status-quoist assertions of poets, sophists and comics as they depend on patronage from well-paying people and they wouldn’t dare to utter things against their interest. When the definitions are provided by the interlocutor, they are put to Socratic scrutiny and made to realize their unsophisticated and unexamined nature and structure. Socratic Method ends in aporia or a state of perplexity where the interlocutor experiences a sense of shame. This shame may ignite a humble introspection in them or conversely, deeply entrench them even more in their position, as was the case with Thrasymachus in Republic.

Expounding upon the specific form of the method, as Cain suggests, the Socratic Method is a dialogue that is inherently based on disagreement with the interlocutor, and hence, in the absence of disagreement, the conversation and its epistemic function collapse. The normative content of the method heavily relies on the prevalent common sense and the related responses of the interlocutor which requires introspection and apt subversion but doesn’t necessarily address all the ills of the society at large. The scope of the method is dangerously low because, as mentioned above, its aporetic ending leaves the interlocutor perplexed and observe a sense of shame. The shame can further act as an impediment as it actively divides the interlocutors into two types retroactively, the ones who introspect and the ones who regurgitate. Also, due to the ad hominem character of the method, it is a particular individual’s views that are negated, refuted and challenged, and not the morally corroding norms in society at large. As much as one shall insist upon the autonomy of a method, they exist among other methods and converse with them even when the other method doesn’t intentionally recognize itself working in the same pursuit. These conversations and interactions have a tendency to put the other down and contain them. The comic method, here in question, on account of its lack of societal compassion, counters the Socratic Method. Societal compassion chiefly differentiates the comic method from the Socratic Method. However, this is not to say that comedy works to the detriment of society, but easy, lewd comedy does.

Here, the nature of the comic method disempowers the individual from interrogating and investigating the assertions and utterances of the comic poet as the play, The Clouds, happened just once. There might have been critics but their criticisms don’t get acknowledged in the same manner as the play does. The general, non-critical impression of the play enters the endoxical realm as it is readily empowered and affirmed by the laughter of the co-spectators. This is quite similar to the negligible or farcical press conferences arranged by the present NDA government in India where questions or queries were not allowed and passionately discouraged. On the other hand, the Socratic Method is dialogical and requires people to examine their common sense which they only state if they are sure of them and confident about their validity. This method would not have survived had the interlocutor kept mum, while the comic relies on this mum-ness and the affirmative laughter of the spectator who never gets elevated to the level of an interlocutor. Socrates provides agency to the respondent while the comic in its vile pursuits disempowers the spectators.

The Socratic Method is an individual’s experience with Socrates, or there can be a group of spectators as well, but they are chiefly willingly drawn in. The aporia and shame induced are felt only by the individual but the comic method has the capacity to address a larger gathering. The act of imbibing the comic’s assertion is communal as it is affirmed by the collective laughter of the people present and becomes a group experience, which gradually becomes a societal experience. Moreover, the comic method banks on the norm of visiting the theatre and the City Dionysius while Socrates had to approach people and had a meager audience which was often reluctant in engaging with Socrates.

As Halliwell informs, Plato might have been a child of four years of age when The Clouds was performed, it is not likely that he attended or remembers the play and its accusations. Dover informs us that Socrates was seventy at the time of his trial and possibly forty-five when The Clouds was written. To remember and mention it in the initial bit of his defense speech during his trial makes one curious about the impact and perception of Aristophanes’ play through the span of these 25 years. Halliwell asserts that such ideas transform into beliefs and become societal facts and markers of collective memory and the subsequent narratives are built upon them. A Skinnerian reading might compel us to relieve Aristophanes of these charges as he might have had a fickle intention and lack a constructive agenda but he is consistently impactful. Goldhill informs how Plato in his final work, Laws, allows citizens to watch comedy so that one can find out the vulgarity it entails but prohibits the citizen from learning comedy.

We’re convicting Socrates of misleading the youth.” “Aren’t you youth? You don’t seem so misled.” “Yes, but look at those uptight guys at the Academy and their ‘pursuit of knowledge’. They are being misled.” “Um, right.”

J.W. Roberts suggests that in order to understand the comedy of the Aristophanic sense or the Old Comedy, one has to compare it with the category of tragedy which was more prevalent and existed way before comedy. Aristotle asserts that the characters employed by the writers in tragedies are the serious ones while the characters in comedies are ordinary, insignificant, or inferior. Tragedies have great men who have come to a probable decline while the comedies have little men with an ascendant tendency in the present society. Given Aristophanes’ anti-intellectual stance in The Clouds, bringing out the pretensions and politics of education, it isn’t surprising why he chose Socrates as the prime figure of a sophist. Socrates was gaining prominence, however of an annoying nature which anyway facilitated the comedic catharsis more since people would enjoy the ripping apart of a moral colossus like Socrates.

Laughter has an oscillating relationship with shame, and therefore with shameful speech as well. The laughter that is invoked through aischrologia or shameful or offensive speeches had been culturally normalized in the Athenian society with respect to deities. Halliwell suggests ‘it can focus shame on others, operating as a political medium of public ridicule and humiliation’. If the shameful or offensive speech is misguided and ill-judged, it can bring shame on the one who laughs or the one who enjoys such laughter. As much as the laughter that Aristophanes induced, the laughing audience contributed to the subsequent demonization of Socrates. Community laughter is characteristic of a community’s beliefs and propensities. It launches an attack on the contrary beliefs in the most joyous way. The spectators of Aristophanes who laugh are the regressive traditionalists who are skeptical about Socrates and discourage the young band of intellectuals who were smitten with Socrates.

In the Indian context, on visual representation and community laughter, Christel Devadawson writes about Unnamati Syama Sundar’s No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932–1956, in which she holds that the book ‘reveals the way in which political satire reduced (Dr.) B.R. Ambedkar’s political and moral stature to that of an obstreperous pygmy who could be overlooked by both British and Indian leaders of the freedom struggle.’ Devadawson brings our attention to the fact that cartoonists like Shankar, Envar Ahmed and Oomen caricatured Ambedkar as markedly shorter than other leaders. She claims that the laughter these cartoons evoke infantilize and dismiss Ambedkar and the aspirations of an entire community. Aristophanes, in his comic gest or not, attacked Socrates and brought an anti-intellectual fervor in the Athenian society.

Thereby, it can be said that populist politics and collective laughter heavily undermine societal compassion and the pursuit of knowledge. The current populist politics has identified the difficult people and antagonized them in the popular imaginary. The antagonization has been instrumental in laying the difference between the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Them’ or the ‘others’ are fashioned in the figure of everything that a society cannot afford to be. In this scenario, lewd comedy is employed to infantilize some rival politicians, demonize past figures while simultaneously romanticizing a forgotten glorious past, trivialize democratic institutions, disenfranchise a section of dissenting population, marginalize academics, and run joke-propaganda to undermine the seriousness of any alternate thinking and assertion. It has become the need of the hour to laugh cautiously. Populism does not begin with a populist leader who has the capacity to promise populist dreams and aspirations, which are often found to be realized to the detriment of another section of people. It begins with a good, obedient mass of population that a populist leader comes to command. Popular social imagination lays foundation for a populist to employ their politics of segregation and lost glory, which is to be restored through a crude politics based on suspicion which is efficiently transformed into hate. A populace or a section of people in it that has the tendency to segregate itself either because of economic discontentment or cultural apprehensions, suffers the malice of lewd comedy and rather, enjoys it. It doesn’t take a populist politician to run a populist regime. It starts with populist leaders, cultural icons, academics, bureaucracy, and even individuals. It becomes scarily important to identify bias in the material that invokes comedy and make finer judgement what one chooses to laugh on. In conclusion, it takes more than one for laughter to happen.


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Devadawson, Christel, Beyond Caricature: How Indian graphic satire represents marginalized communities, in Caravan, October 2019.

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Student of political science; and learner of all arts, fine and unfine.

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